Monthly Archives: November 2016

Review for Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung

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My Summary: Chloe Cho is tired of being treated like an alien for her Asianness. When Chloe’s English teacher who is new to town turns out to be Korean American, she’s excited to finally meet someone who shares her heritage. However, when she investigates her family history for a school project, she unearths a mind-blowing truth about her parents.

Review:

Honestly, I will probably never get tired of books that focus on an Asian American character’s ethnicity, even though it’s important to have plenty of books featuring Asian/Asian American characters that aren’t about their ethnicity, because they are cathartic. Mike Jung adds to the growing canon of Asian American kid lid with a book that portrays the experience of being “othered” perfectly while throwing in an extra twist (or two).

I related to Chloe’s experience quite well, especially as a fellow East Asian American. Getting mistaken for Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. (I’m Taiwanese) was a regular part of my childhood, and when I was in middle school, some seventh grader I didn’t even know went out of his way to say “konnichi wa” to me multiple times in passing. Also, the part where she questioned whether her friendship with Shelley was rooted in Shelley’s fetishization of her culture was very real. Because of the popularity of Japanese and, more recently, Korean pop culture abroad, there are white people (as well as POC, unfortunately) who fetishize Japanese, Korean, and East Asian people in general. It’s extremely uncomfortable to have to wonder whether someone’s motivations for being interested in you, platonically or romantically or otherwise, are based on these ridiculous idealizations of your culture and people that homogenize you and treat you as interchangeable.

Chloe is a great protagonist because she’s so unapologetically sassy. The book is written in first-person, and her voice jumps off the page. You can feel her frustration, her excitement, her shock, her rage, and so on very acutely. Moreover, she’s not afraid to voice her opinions or express her emotions. She may get good grades and be good at the violin, but she is 3000% not here to be your model minority. Take this glorious passage (some parts omitted for brevity):

“He told Jeremy that you always win first chair because Asians all have a violin-playing gene, and how’s he supposed to beat that?”

I could almost feel the surface of my eyeballs giving off steam as Shelley’s words sank into my brain.

“Oh, that weasel-faced little preppypants,” I said, not bothering to whisper. “I don’t care how expensive his violin is, he’s going DOWN.”

YOU GO, CHLOE CHO!

(For the record, I told that seventh grader who said “konnichi wa” to “f**k off.”)

While a lot of books that explore ethnic identity have the parents teaching their child about their heritage while the kid resists because they’ve internalized the stigma of being Asian in a white-dominated society, this book is the opposite. Chloe is extremely interested in learning about and exploring her heritage, and her parents are the one who refuse to have anything to do with it.

And it turns out there’s a very good reason for it. That’s where the big twist comes in and takes the feeling of being “othered” to a new level and makes this book a creative spin on a familiar story. Then, just when you think you know what’s up and things seem to be settling down, the ending features another twist that makes the book end with a bang.

On top of the other stuff I already mentioned, Mike Jung finds ways to throw in scenes and conversations that encourage you to think critically about cultural elements that are often viewed superficially. Or initiate important dialogues about representation, such as this one (also edited for brevity):

“I’m reading this book. It’s about aliens who come to Earth, they introduce an alien virus into the water supply, and you know what, the heroes in these movies, the people who save the world, they’re all white people, ALL OF THEM and when there are human-looking aliens, they’re also all white people! Why don’t any of the aliens who look like white people get killed? Where are the Korean people? Why is it always a white person who saves the world? Why are the aliens always the bad guys??”

If I ever encounter someone who treats kid lit like a throwaway genre that doesn’t require/entail depth or thoughtfulness, I will shove this book at them.

Recommendation: I love this book and even if you’re not someone who usually reads middle grade fiction, I’d highly recommend it!

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Review for Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana

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My Summary: Tara Krishnan is used to being an outcast in her school and is devastated when her best friend decides to spend their junior year studying abroad in Argentina. However, that’s only the beginning of the changes: Tara is suddenly swept into the popular social circle of her high school, and an alternate Earth with the same people but a different history is discovered. The discovery starts to warp the world around her, from her family, to her friends, and nothing in her life will be the same again.

Review:

This book is different from a lot of contemporary YA books. Sure, it has the high school drama, the crush/romance plot, the theme of trying to fit in and make friends, etc., but it also has something more, which is incorporated and explored through the speculative element.

Before I discuss the speculative part, I want to talk a little bit about how race and class are treated in the book. The main character, Tara, is biracial, white and Indian American, but she is not white-passing. She experiences microaggressions all the time, and she’s hyperaware of her difference in her town, where she is the only brown person at school. The book describes the feeling very accurately in this passage:

“I didn’t like the defensive tone in my voice, but I often felt I was walking through a field of landmines in Greenwich. people–teachers, other students, parents–constantly made offhand comments that didn’t mean much to them, but I read something else in their words. A hidden language that told me I was different. Or maybe I was so aware of my own difference that I was just looking to be offended by other people’s words.”

One of the worst things about microaggressions is how small they are and how they’re often unintentional because that smallness, that lack of malicious intentions, is used by other people to excuse them even though the perpetuate bias. And anyone who has experienced a microaggression probably knows the feeling of questioning themselves and feeling like they’re the only one who notices and is affected. Sometimes people of color invalidate their own feelings about experiencing racist microaggressions because they don’t want to be That person who disrupts the peace by speaking up.

Tara tolerates the microaggressions for a while, but eventually she puts her foot down when she knows that she’s being tokenized and exploited through the model minority stereotype. What ensues after she loses her patience is one of the most spectacular call-outs and smackdowns of a racist in the history of YA literature. It was one of my favorite scenes in the book because it was extremely cathartic for me as someone who has been in a similar boat to Tara. I don’t think I’d ever have the guts to say something like that to someone who has authority over me at school.

Not only is Tara Indian American in a school of white people, she’s also a scholarship student at an elite prep school. While a large number of Indian Americans are part of the professional elite as engineers, doctors, etc., not all of them are. Tara’s father is one of those people who fell through the cracks in the system. He wanted to be a physicist, but ended up working as kitchen staff in a restaurant and then opening his own restaurant. Tara’s class background adds a layer to her experience of marginalization.

Tara explicitly mentions it at the beginning:

“In Connecticut, we were all alone, adrift in a sea of whiteness and wealth, and it really did feel like a sea I was drowning in.”

Her feeling of isolation isn’t just mental or emotional, it’s also a byproduct of the physical environment she’s living in, shaped by social class. Before she lived in wealthier, suburban Connecticut, she lived on the Lower East Side of New York, sharing an apartment building with twenty-four other people who were like extended family. The physical closeness of these families facilitated their psychological closeness. In the suburbs, things are markedly different, where every house has its own lawn and is set a distance away from the road, usually with a driveway and a long path between the road and the door. This physical separation from her neighbors exacerbates the mental and emotional disconnect she already feels from them.

Now, to discuss the speculative element of the book. Interwoven with Tara’s personal struggles at school and home are the repercussions of the discovery of Terra Nova. It’s an alternate Earth, with almost the same people, but with differences in its history where it deviated notably from Earth’s. The existence of this planet provokes mass curiosity that becomes obsession for many. People are intrigued by the idea that on Terra Nova, there might be another version of themselves. This idea causes people to reevaluate their relationships with the people around them as well as reflect on their own lives. In some cases, it causes them to make drastic changes, throwing off the balance in the lives they touch. Tara’s mother is one of these people, leading to more stress for Tara.

By juxtaposing and interconnecting the global and the local events in Tara’s life, Aditi Khorana introduces deeper themes on how humans deal with the question “what if?” This philosophical bent is what makes the book stand out to me among other contemporary novels.

Beyond the speculative element, the author is great at character development. Tara is initially judgmental of the people in the popular clique she gets roped into, but as the story progresses, we start to see through Tara the complexities of these characters. They have their own secret struggles and ambivalent feelings that create tensions in their relationships with one another.

The one thing I disliked about this book was that there was no definite information on what happened to one of the major characters (won’t spoil who) at the very end. It was really upsetting to me since I like to have closure. But at the same time, I think the author did it for a reason, for the sake of the broader theme of the story, so I’ve made my peace with it.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a hardcore science fiction book, this is not that kind of book. If you want a thought-provoking contemporary novel with speculative elements, read this book.

Review for Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

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My Summary: Each generation of the royal family on the island of Fennbirn consists of triplets, all girls, with an equal claim to the throne. Each possesses an incredible power: Mirabella is an elemental, Arsinoe a naturalist, and Katharine a poisoner. On their sixteenth birthday, the deadly contest for the throne begins, and the last queen standing takes the crown.

Review:

From the beginning, it’s apparent that this is a high stakes game the characters are playing, and that fuels a lot of the suspense throughout the book. The contest is about more than just the three queens, it’s also about the balance of power in Fennbirn. Not surprisingly, there are a number of political factions in the queendom, one for each queen, and they’re betting their futures on the queen they stand behind. At present, the poisoners dominate the council, having established a dynasty of sorts with the Arron family. They are eager to maintain their place at the top, and the others, the Temple of the priestesses (backing Mirabella) and the Westwoods (the naturalists), are impatient to unseat them and reconfigure the balance of power in their own favor. So this book isn’t nonstop Hunger-Games-style action, it’s heavy with the political intrigue.

The beginning of the book was a bit slow for me, and I struggled to keep up with who’s who because of the large cast of characters (maybe it was just me, though), but once I was over that initial hurdle, the book clipped along and sucked me in.

One of the things that I appreciated about this book is that it is an unapologetic celebration of girl/woman power. There are no kings, only king-consorts to the queens who reign. And the heads of the political factions are women. In Fennbirn, women hold the power, and that is how it’s always been, so the culture is quite different from your typical fantasy story, which often portrays a very patriarchal society. For example, the concept of women marrying as virgins is a “mainlander” custom that the people of Fennbirn disdain. That’s a breath of fresh air to read since it’s almost always the opposite.

Yet even as women hold the power in general, that doesn’t mean every individual woman is powerful or free. Much of the book is devoted to exploring how the three young queens attempt to exercise personal agency in the face of what is expected of them. They may be queens, but they are also beholden to others, groomed from birth to be pawns in a grand political game. Everything they do has consequences and implications; their lives are a running show to prove their dominance to their future subjects and their rivals. They have mentors, servants, suitors, and allies aplenty, but very few true friends whose ultimate goal isn’t to reap the benefits of a crowned queen’s political power. And the violence they’re supposed to inflict to win is immense and terrifying. (I have two sisters, and I’d sooner die than kill them.)

But each of the girls rebels against the game in her own way. That’s part of what makes these girls compelling characters: they aren’t just clamoring for their sisters’ blood as expected of them, they have complex and conflicting motivations and desires.

This is a dark book, as evident from the title, and it puts you through so many emotions. You go into it knowing that at the end of everything, two of the three girls are supposed to die. As I followed each queen’s story, I sympathized with her, hoped for her survival (if not her triumph), dreaded her potential death. And then I found out that Three Dark Crowns is the first book in a series, and the world kind of dropped away from me for a bit. My brain went “It’s not over. It’s not over…” In two different emotions, frustration and relief. Frustration because there’s more waiting until everything is resolved, relief that for the time being, there is still hope for the three girls.

If there was one thing I disliked about the book, it was one of the romantic subplots. It felt very forced and seemed to be based on lust and not much else. But it didn’t hijack the main plot too much, so it wasn’t a huge flaw to me.

Also, I’m kind of hoping there might be queer girls somewhere in the series. Because why wouldn’t there be? Now that I think about it, if one of the queens were to fall in love with a girl, that would make for an interesting conflict since the crowned queen is supposed to produce the next generation of queens with a king-consort. (Watch this actually happen, lol.)

Recommendation: Read it. It’s chock full of powerful, complex, and dynamic female characters, has its fair share of plot twists (including a MAJOR one at the end, aaahhh), and you’ll finish the last page wanting the second book yesterday.

Review for Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

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My Summary: Reshma Kapoor, top ranked student of Alexander Graham Bell High School, will to get into Stanford. Not “wants to,” but “will.” Because she is willing to do anything to make it happen, even if it means bending or breaking the rules, and then some. For her “hook” to make herself stand out among the competition, she decides to write a young adult novel about a fictional version of herself. But the real Reshma Kapoor is a study nerd, without the appeal to the mainstream YA market. To make herself into the perfect YA protagonist, Reshma sets out to do “normal” teenage things and create a plot and character arc for herself. Unfortunately for her, things don’t always go as planned.

Review:

Reading this book was an interesting experience because I was valedictorian of my high school, back in the day (Class of 2011, so not forever ago but still long enough for there to be emotional distance). I didn’t get to the top until my final semester, but I graduated first. And unlike Reshma, it wasn’t because I clawed my way to the top on purpose. It kind of just happened, without me ever planning to make it happen. I can empathize with her struggles. I, too, applied to Stanford (I was ranked 3rd at the time of submitting apps), and I, too, agonized over whether I’d really stand out among the applicants to the various elite universities I was applying to (also applied to Princeton, UPenn, and MIT, which are similar level of competitiveness). In short, Reshma is in a situation very similar to my younger self, but she is a very different kind of person.

She is not likable (actually, I’m not sure I was all that likable, but I had friends, at least). She is not supposed to be likable. She doesn’t have a strong sense of compassion or justice or any of those traits that standard heroines tend to have (more on this later). In fact, her most prominent feature is her absolute ruthlessness. You could say she’s an anti-hero.

And yet, somehow, despite being unlikable, she pulls you in. You can’t help but respect her strength of will, even as it drives her to do ethically questionable or straight up bad things. Part of it is just the fact that the system isn’t fair to begin with. Reshma is fully aware of this and uses her knowledge of how the system works to her advantage. To her, the appearance of success (by a flawed and biased and rigged system’s standards of success) is more important than actual success. Shortcuts, loopholes, blackmail, and lies are fair game to her.

Eventually, all of this starts of catch up to her, and it’s fascinating to watch how she handles these curveballs because she is so relentlessly practical about it all. Assess the damage, find the most efficient solution, move on and keeping working toward her goal. But her solutions are rarely real solutions, they’re more like bandaids on the problem, so things escalate and get worse. But also entertaining.

Another element that I liked about the book was the setting. A lot of contemporary YA novels take place in a general suburban environment that could be anywhere, but Enter Title Here is firmly grounded in the culture of Silicon Valley. And while tech startups are a part of that culture and are referenced in the story, what really makes Enter Title Here a convincing representation of the area is the racial climate, particularly as it relates to academics.

Race is not sidestepped but rather addressed explicitly in various ways throughout the novel. At the very beginning of her novel, Reshma lays out the racial makeup of not only her school but the various cliques or types of students in a very true-to-reality assessment. I didn’t attend high school in the Bay Area, but I attended a school where the upper echelons of the school were dominated by white and Asian students, and I recognize the “study machines, smart slackers, and perfects” in them.

The overall academic environment of Reshma’s school is so relatable and real to me because I lived it. The constant recalculating of gpa and ranking, the strategizing of which courses to take based on gpa considerations, the desperate measures to keep or change your rank, etc. My high school housed a magnet program for the entire school district, and some kid was bitter and wanted the school to exclude the magnet program students from the school’s rankings because they took up most of the top 10% (in Texas, students in the top 10% get automatic admission to Texas public universities…ish; god, Fisher v. Texas just came to mind). He felt they had an unfair advantage (they didn’t). I was not in the magnet program, but I ended up graduating first, so that kind of undermined his argument.

Reshma’s literature teacher Ms. Ratcliffe is the embodiment of the quintessential casually racist white hippie, down the to Chinese tattoo (I rolled my eyes so hard when I saw that, like “oh god, she’s one of Those People”). She is superficially sweet and tries to project an image of open-mindedness, but her questions and statements when speaking to Reshma reveal assumptions and biases based in racist stereotypes. I think every POC has encountered a Ms. Ratcliffe at some point in their life, especially if they’ve lived in a so-called liberal city inhabited by many white liberals (*coughAustincough*).

Although Reshma champions a lawsuit accusing the schools and teachers of racism for self-serving reasons (to protect her grades and first-place rank), she’s onto something when talking about the differential treatment of white students and Asian students. Discrimination against Asians is real, and so is white privilege. White resentment and fear of Asian competition and domination in academics is very real. White flight from Asian-majority areas is a documented phenomenon, particularly in the Silicon Valley area, where the story takes place.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was the characterization of Reshma’s parents. While the strict Asian parents are out there, so are the more laid back ones who don’t put ridiculous amounts of pressure on their kids, and they rarely get acknowledged or represented. In Enter Title Here, Reshma is the one who is obsessed with climbing to the top; her parents are the one concerned that she’s taking it too far. My parents were also in the latter category. When I was in college and having literal panic attacks over academics, my parents told me to not obsess over my grades and focus on my health instead (didn’t really happen, oops).

Aside from breaking stereotypes, her parents make her a more sympathetic character because she genuinely cares about them.

Which brings me to the next point: this book is very meta. A young adult novel about someone writing a young adult novel is a brilliant way to comment on the writing process. Reshma bounces ideas off of her therapist, who’s also writing a novel, and they discuss ways to intensify the drama in the story, among other things. In these discussions and in her document with the “honest” version of her novel, Reshma lays bare all of the essential ingredients to a successful YA novel: a likable, normal American heroine (very much coded as white American); an antagonist; major plot points such as making friends, getting a boyfriend, having sex, etc.; emotional arc; a climax; and so on.

Her quest to manufacture these elements out of her [supposedly] not-very-YA-heroine life creates humor in many situations. She complains to her mother about not being a good protagonist because her “quirks are not lovable”: she is not “clumsy,” “overwhelmed by life,” or “unlucky in love.” I think anyone who has read enough YA will recognize these tropes for what they are. I was especially amused by the “clumsy” one. At one point in my life, I mused that I might be a Mary-Sue because I’m clumsy.

Sometimes the humor is because her attempts at making herself an ideal YA protagonist directly reference or call out the stereotypes that are placed on Asian Americans. For example, in the very beginning, she says,

“I bet you love this, don’t you, Ms. Montrose (her editor)? White people like to think we’re all emotionless study machines. They tell themselves that their kids might not do as well in school, but at least they know how to enjoy life.

Well, I’ll spend a month enjoying life and then, oh, I expect it’ll ‘transform’ me.”

And when Reshma hunts for an antagonist for her novel, she tells her mom:

“I’ve got it…You’re the villain. People will really sympathize with a girl who had a crazy tiger mom that forced her to work too hard. You messed me up. That’s my angle.”

Whether the author intended it or not, these bits reminded me of the stories I’ve heard about Asian American authors getting their manuscripts featuring Asian characters rejected because the publisher has an unspoken quota on Asian protagonists, or authors being pressured to change the race of their character from Asian to white. How so? Well, I think Reshma’s comments reveal the way whiteness is valued in the publishing industry (and beyond). Not just white people, but traits that are associated with white people. Even though Reshma isn’t actually a stereotype (she’s definitely not emotionless, for one), the nature of stereotyping is to reduce people to such, so she has to actively debunk and break the stereotype in order to appeal to the white gaze.

And the juxtaposition of her writing herself as less stereotypically Asian to be an ideal protagonist while making her mother more stereotypically Asian to be an ideal antagonist speaks volumes about what the presumed white audience expects and values.

And of course, being who she is, Reshma uses the stereotypes to her advantage. As regrettable as it is that the stereotypes matter to begin with, it’s funny because there’s a “I’ve played you using your own game” kind of vibe.

In other instances, the humor arises from the contrast of Reshma being dead serious about this novel and the sheer absurdity of what she’s about to attempt–or demand from someone who is supposed to be a character in her novel–in order to write it. She is an unwitting character in a comedy.

I think the funniest thing, at least in the “ironic funny” sense, is that even though she pegs herself as not a very good protagonist, the result of her self-aware and self-serving quest to become a better protagonist makes her a good protagonist, just not in the way she intended.

The final thing I wanted to comment on for this review is the formatting of the book, i.e. the epistolary format. It’s written in first-person from Reshma’s point of view and is supposed to be the “honest” version of the novel draft she’s writing, so you get to see everything that happens behind the scenes, her thought processes, etc. There are sections where there are emails or text message exchanges that are formatted to be like the real thing, creating a sense a realism, like you’re seeing the world through Reshma’s eyes as things happen. You’re completely immersed in Reshma’s world. Even when you don’t like her, you’re going along for the ride. And what a ride it is.

Recommendation: Read this book. It’s great.

Review for Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

ortm-coverMy Summary: Life isn’t easy for a Chinese American girl in 1906. However, Mercy Wong doesn’t let that stop her from getting what she wants. Using her wits, she strikes a bargain that gains her entry into the elite school St. Clare’s. However, the difficulties she faces are a bit more than she bargained for. Then, an earthquake strikes, and all of a sudden the social order of San Francisco is turned on its head.

Review:

I didn’t quite know how much I needed historical fiction about a Chinese American protagonist until I read this book. Beyond just having Asian Americans visible in American history, we need their voices in the realm of historical fiction so that they become a part of America’s collective cultural imaginary. This book takes a wonderful step toward realizing that goal.

In terms of worldbuilding, Stacey Lee, masterfully recreates her fictionalized version of 1906 San Francisco. The sights, sounds, the texture of the setting are vivid and believable. I felt fully immersed in Mercy’s world as I followed her adventures.

A critical part of the worldbuilding for this novel was tied to the subjective worldview of the protagonist. Mercy, as a Chinese American girl, occupies a position on the margins of American society. Although it alienates her from the mainstream culture, it also offers an unique alternative perspective and critique on that very culture. Writing this novel from Mercy’s point of view decenters whiteness in a narrative that is traditionally white-centric.

This decentering of whiteness is particularly notable given the setting, both the place and the time. San Francisco is home to the oldest Chinatown and probably had the largest population of Chinese people in the nation at the time. In 1906 and the years leading up to and following it, Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism were a strong force in the white American consciousness. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (all but stopped Chinese immigration to the US), the Alien Land Law of 1887 (denied Asian immigrants the right to own land through racially coded language), the Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 (prohibited the importation of Chinese laborers unless they qualified under a few exceptions for their profession), and other similar laws had all been enacted to render Chinese immigrants second-class citizens (actually, not even citizens, as they did not have the right to naturalize until the mid-1900s). On top of these legal acts of discrimination, outright violence against Chinese people was rampant. Mobs of white people burned down parts of Chinatowns and lynched Chinese people.

Chinatown, in the eyes of white Americans, was a nightmarish place: opium addiction, gambling, prostitution, filth and disease, sexual perversion–you name any vice, and you can bet it was attributed to Chinese immigrants.

That is an outsider’s perspective, however. Mercy is an insider. She calls the place home and is familiar with its ins and outs, its peoples and rhythms. Her perspective humanizes and individualizes what was formerly a monolithic specter of the yellow peril.

A useful concept to draw upon regarding Mercy’s perspective is that of the “double consciousness.” This phrase was coined by W.E.B. Du Bois to refer to the ways Black Americans lived in a white supremacist society, with their psyches split between their own viewpoint and that of the demeaning gaze of society at large, making it hard for them to reconcile their identities. Mercy also experiences a kind of double consciousness. She is knows intimately her authentic Chinese culture but is also hyperaware of how outsiders stereotype her people. Her double consciousness is sometimes a burden, but she also cleverly takes advantage of it.

In order to legitimize her presence at St. Clare’s, she adopts the false persona of a rich Chinese heiress recently arrived from China. In fact, she was born and raised in San Francisco, but almost nobody at the school is aware of that. Knowing quite well their ignorance of and their assumptions about Chinese culture, she invents bizarre cultural customs to satisfy the curiosity of teachers and students who wish to learn the ways of an “exotic” foreigner. And the white people eat it all up, leading to endless humor.

Mercy is a great protagonist. True to her “bossy cheeks” label, she is witty, feisty, and impertinent in all the best ways. It is both a weakness and a strength, for it gets her into trouble as much as it helps her get out of it or toward a goal. She takes risks and takes falls but keeps her stubborn chin up and moving forward no matter what. She is more than a survivor, she is an ambitious visionary who challenges the horizons of what is doable.

In addition to a lovable heroine, Outrun the Moon has a cast of distinct and dynamic supporting characters, from Mercy’s childhood friend Tom, to the white girls in her class, to the stuffy headmistress of St. Clare’s. They have their own stories and their own development.

In particular, the positive female friendships stood out to me. It would have been easy to go the Mean Girls route and have Mercy’s classmates all be petty, superficial, and bigoted idiots who serve as a foil to a Not-Like-Other-Girls protagonist, but the supporting cast of female characters are as well-developed as Mercy herself, and their bonding experiences made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. (Friendship stories are the best.)

While the romance was a very small part of the book, it was still a nice addition. Tom is sweet, ambitious like Mercy but humble, and the two of them make a great duo. He understands Mercy’s “bossy cheeks” personality and embraces and appreciates it as it is. He is an endearing character.

Although the backdrop to the main conflicts of this book is a terrible disaster, the tone of the novel is optimistic and life-affirming. Times of crisis tend to either bring out the worst in people or the best in people. Here, the latter dominates. Prejudice and divisions are discarded in favor of cooperation and solidarity, sending a message of hope for a fractured society.

The book is timely considering current events. Hate crimes are on the rise, and regressive policy plans threaten the lives and well-being of marginalized folks across the nation. Now is the time to work in solidarity to do what we can to protect one another.

Recommendation: I highly recommend it! It’s suitable for middle grade readers as well as young adult readers.

Review for The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon

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My Summary: Daniel is a dreamer on his way to a Yale interview that he doesn’t actually care about to please his Korean parents. Natasha is a science geek who is about to be deported to a Jamaica she barely remembers. The lives of these two teens who appear to have nothing in common collide, and both are changed in ways they never would have imagined during the course of a single day.

Review:

First of all, can I just talk about how groundbreaking this novel is? A YA romance novel with a Black girl and Asian boy as the main characters/pairing? This kind of pairing is as rare in real life as it is in fiction. Studies looking at data from dating sites and marriage records have found Black female/Asian male as the least common match among heterosexual couples, and this has a lot to do with the way normative ideas of sexuality are gendered and racialized in our society.

Historically, Asian men have been portrayed and viewed by white Americans as sexually inferior and even asexual. This stereotype came about as a result of early Chinese immigrant men taking on jobs that were considered women’s work. This did not happen naturally or by accident. In order to appease white laborers whose job security was threatened by the cheap labor of Chinese immigrants, the government passed laws restricting the types of work that Chinese men could legally pursue, thus relegating them to “feminized” jobs like laundry, cooking, etc.

For Black women, the stereotype goes the other way: they are hypersexual. This stereotype has its origins in the days of slavery. Under slavery, Black people’s status was a function of their “utility” as laborers. Black women were not only agricultural laborers but also responsible for the reproductive labor of producing more slaves, so they were treated as “breeders.” In general, the stereotype of Black people as hypersexual was used to dehumanize them and compare them to animals, thus justifying their oppression and exploitation by white people.

So, between these two extremely loaded stereotypes, the Asian male/Black female pairing becomes the ultimate “mismatch.”

Thankfully, The Sun Is Also A Star turns racial and gender stereotypes on their heads. Daniel is not the science person, Natasha is. He’s the one who’s idealistic to the point of being naive, and she’s the one who’s practical to a fault. Instead of him mansplaining stuff to her, she gets to be the one who educates and impresses him. And she’s a tough sell on the ideas he peddles on love. But miraculously, yet also believably, these two starkly different teens start to connect and appreciate each other over the course of the day.

So, I’m usually the type who doesn’t buy insta-love type romances (because it’s usually just insta-lust), but this book was different. Well, first of all, they didn’t go gaga for each other at first sight. Secondly, the circumstances under which they met were unusual. And more importantly, they had reasons to fall over the other person, given their respective personalities and situations.

Here’s my take on it: Natasha is usually a practical person, but she’s in a very desperate situation in which she needs hope and faith to give her strength to face the future. Daniel, the idealist, provides that, and he makes her laugh, which is therapeutic for her in her time of high stress. On Daniel’s end, he’s used to keeping his head down and going along with what his parents expect of him while hoping for a way out to pursue what he really enjoys. Along comes Natasha, who is unapologetic about who she is and is willing to do anything possible to get the thing she needs and wants the most. Her example inspires him to be more true to himself. They both learn something from each other.

So what makes this book work for me?

Characterization is a major component. Natasha and Daniel really jump off the page at me. Nicola Yoon really has characterization and narrative voice down to an art. All of the little details: the things they like, their appearance, their speech patterns, their body language, their thoughts, their quirks, their habits, their ways of responding to different situations, etc.–all of these build them into unique and believable and real characters. And they make very real teenagers. They’re smart and thoughtful but also young and inexperienced, and it really shows in their narration.

I also enjoyed the structure of the book, which isn’t the typical linear, single point-of-view narrative. Aside from the alternation between two first person perspectives, there’s also intermittent passages from other characters’ point of view and a third person omniscient narration that provides background information on subjects relevant to the story. The snippets from the minor characters’ viewpoints function to connect the dots between the lives of the characters and illustrate how much of an impact people can have on one another. Cause and effect aren’t just a straight line but rather a complex web of events that are inextricably linked, even for total strangers. The more factual passages are informative but also entertaining. What I really appreciate about these passages is that they render knowledge that seems esoteric more accessible to a general audience because of its relevance to characters that the readers are emotionally invested in.

Another thing I liked about the book was the way race was handled. Natasha and Daniel were not token, throwaway diversity props. Their race and ethnicity informed their identities in important ways but didn’t constrain them, so they felt authentic without being stereotypical. The narrative also explicitly addressed the existence of stereotypes, and how it feels to be stereotyped by someone or stereotype someone. There was unflinching recognition of antiblackness in Korean American communities, despite the history of economic interdependence between Korean Americans and Black Americans in cities like Los Angeles and New York City.

In particular, I appreciate the fact that race is historicized and contextualized through the informative factual passages. The sociopolitical history and symbolism of natural hair is explained, and the origins of Korean American domination of a market catering to Black communities is also revealed. These passages show that what is personal to these characters is also political, implicated in systems larger than themselves, with repercussions beyond individual interactions. In an era where race is increasingly viewed and taught through a superficial, decontextualized lens, thus allowing institutional racism to go unchecked, stories like this are an important educational tool for the younger generation.

My other reasons for loving The Sun Is Also A Star are more personal. Daniel is a character I can empathize with well because I’m also a second generation Asian American. That pressure to achieve the American Dream is too real for people like us. Even when your parents don’t give you direct pressure, you still feel obligated to make their sacrifices and investment worth it. Although I didn’t mention it in my About paragraph because it wasn’t really relevant to my blog, I also completed a degree in aerospace engineering and it wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through it that I truly confronted the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about it even though I thought I should (just as Daniel feels about being a doctor). It was interesting and challenging, for sure, but it wasn’t my One True Calling. And right now, even though I completed a degree in something else that I did enjoy, I’m still struggling to reconcile my practical and idealistic sides. I’m not a poet, but I write fantasy novels, so I’m in the same boat as Daniel.

Natasha, despite having a different racial background and relationship with immigration/generational status, is also someone I can relate to a lot. The reason I decided to major in aerospace engineering was not because my parents wanted me to but because I genuinely loved science as a kid. I was that person who dressed up as an inventor for costume days at school, checked out every book the library’s children’s section had on astronomy, and devoured biographies of people like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and George Washington Carver. I was That Person who would undermine jokes by pointing out the technical inaccuracies in the setup. (And, to an extent, I’m still that person. I still find science fascinating and excel at technical work, I just don’t want to do it as my job is all.) On top of that, I have also known the desperation and despair of situation that’s out of my control.

The final reason I loved this book was the ending. It wasn’t a fairy tale ending, but it was satisfying all the same. It was at once realistic but hopeful, striking a perfect balance between the two. My inner idealist/romantic was crying with joy when I read the last page.

If there is one thing that I didn’t like about the book, it’s the part where Daniel followed Natasha to the store because that’s basically stalking, which shouldn’t be excused/romanticized. But barring that, The Sun Is Also A Star was amazing.

Recommendation: Read it, have your heart broken, feel the feels, go!

P.S. The cover is a Work of Art. Dominique Falla is a gift.

P.P.S. Did anyone else notice/find it cute that Natasha and Daniel’s names start with the same letters and Nicola and her husband David’s names? This can’t be a coincidence…

Review for The Reader by Traci Chee

the-reader

My Summary: Sefia is alone. Her father has been murdered and her aunt has been kidnapped by a mysterious foe. Intent on revenge, she sets out to find this enemy and rescue her aunt. The only thing she has besides her wits and weapons is a mysterious book that her enemies desperately want to get their hands on. As she journeys on, she gains friends and allies, discovers the secrets of the book, and uncovers earth-shattering truths about her past.

Review:

Warning: Contains spoilers regarding romantic subplot developments!

This book has a little bit of everything I love: kickass heroine, cute friendships, wholesome romance, intense fights, swashbuckling adventure, awesome powers, and book nerdery.

In our world, literacy rates were low in most places up until very recent history due to inaccessibility, but a world where almost nobody knows how to read, or even knows what reading is, or what a book is? That’s a dystopia to me. I live for books and reading.

The great thing about this premise, however, is that it is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the magic of reading through the perspective of a first-time reader. And that magic is both literal as well as figurative. Along with the affective power of experiencing a story, the act of reading gives characters literal power to change the physical world around them. I am utterly enchanted by this concept.

437 pages is a fairly long book, but The Reader didn’t drag at all. The plot raced along, and not at the expense of the characters or worldbuilding. In a way, The Reader is almost like four books in one since it interweaves four different narrative arcs. The arcs seem self-contained and unrelated in the beginning, but they soon begin to converge in a series of surprising revelations and plot twists. There is some Inception level stuff in there. It also gets meta. I don’t want to spoil anything major, so I’ll leave it at that.

Another cool thing about The Reader is that there are things in the book beyond the main text: fingerprint smudges, blacked out passages, text that fades to blankness as it goes across the page, hidden messages, etc. These touches add a layer of enjoyment to the reading experience. I honestly love the formatting of the book.

Romance is often the least important part of a story to me, but Sefia and Archer’s relationship gave me cavities with how Sweet and Pure it was. It was wonderful to watch how they started out as complete strangers and gradually built their way toward a friendship and relationship built on mutual trust. They have each other’s backs in combat and are also emotional support for each other when dealing with their respective traumas. They are each hurting deeply but find it in themselves to show kindness to the other person. This is my ideal kind of relationship. *gets out tissues*

If you can’t tell, I’m in love with this book and despairing over how long I have to wait for the sequel(s).

Recommendation: There is no reason not to read this book. Read it! You won’t regret it.

P.S. I adore the cover illustration/design. It’s one of my favorites from this year.

Review for Serpentine and Sacrifice by Cindy Pon

Note: This series takes place in the same same universe as Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, which were published first, but you don’t have to read those books to read these.

My Summary: Skybright is content with her life as the handmaiden and best friend of Zhen Ni. However, her comfortable, structured life is thrown into disarray when she discovers that she can grow a serpent’s tail. In the wake of this troubling discovery, she reevaluates her relationship with Zhen Ni, experiences unexpected romance, and becomes ensnared in a supernatural conflict that threatens the mortal world.

Review:

Cindy is back at it again making me hungry and creeped out (not at the same time) with her vivid descriptions. I liked the first series for its lush worldbuilding and kickass heroine; this series has that and more, including a broader scope and greater complexity.

In a departure from the tone set by the first Xia duology, Serpentine and its sequel explore the moral consciousness of demons and half-demons, who are more than just cruel monsters. Skybright’s journey to understand and accept her demon heritage functions as a metaphor of being the “other” in the real world.It puts into painful relief the struggles of living between identities, called “liminality” by academics.

Chief among the “and more” that makes this duology great is the female friendship that lies at the core of the story. Skybright and Zhen Ni are sisters of the soul. They love each other deeply and stick by each other, but they also struggle with secrets and lies and hurt each other sometimes.

In addition to the female friendship, there’s girl/girl romance! In a historical Chinese-inspired fantasy! Finding representation as a queer and Asian person is like looking for a needle in a haystack, so I have to thank Cindy for making that step in the right direction toward full diversity and inclusivity. YA needs more of this. My only complaint is that there isn’t more from the perspective of Zhen Ni (novella/sequel/companion, maybe?).

Another thing I loved about this series is the dynamic characters. All of the major characters grow and change in some way throughout the course of the story. Just when you think you know them, they surprise you with something new. The second book was narrated from three different points of view, giving readers the opportunity to become more emotionally invested in characters besides Skybright.

The second book also contains a number of surprises and twists that I did not see coming, and I liked it even more than the first book. My only regret is that there wasn’t more on what happened to Zhen Ni and Stone during the interlude between the climax and the ending.

Recommendation: Read it! You can order signed/personalized copies of the books from Cindy’s local indie bookstore, Mysterious Galaxy.

Review for Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Notes: I read the paperback edition of Silver Phoenix. I posted the hardcover jacket illustration above because I like it a lot more than the quasi-faceless, probably-not-even-Chinese/Asian model on the paperback edition.

My Summary: When Ai Ling’s father goes missing, she decides to go in search of him, running away from an unwanted marriage while she’s at it. As she journeys on, she discovers a strange new power, befriends the handsome Chen Yong, meets many supernatural creatures and larger-than-life beings, and comes face-to-face with the ghosts of her past life.

Review:

So, I saw Silver Phoenix on the shelf at my high school’s library back in 2009, and for whatever reason, didn’t read it. Shame on younger me. I finally read it and its sequel, Fury of the Phoenix last year during the inception of my Asian American reading spree. I was particularly excited by the existence of the book as a fantasy lover. There are so few fantasy novels with Chinese-inspired settings and so many of the ones that exist are orientalist messes written by clueless and/or fetishizing white people. Reading an #ownvoices Asian fantasy was great.

First thing: worldbuilding. Cindy Pon’s eye for detail is wonderful, and the setting came alive (helped by my experience watching far too many Chinese/Taiwanese historical dramas). In particular, I really wanted to eat the food she described. I got so many cravings reading these books.

Beyond worldbuilding, the descriptions of demons never failed to creep me out. I’m not the book-throwing type (I like to keep my books in pristine condition), but if I were, I totally would have thrown it from being majorly grossed out.

The main character, Ai Ling, is daring and determined. She is willing to take risks for the things she cares about, even if it means flouting misogynistic social norms and facing demons. She is placed in some pretty terrifying situations, and while she’s not completely fearless, she manages to overcome the fear to do what is necessary and make progress in her journey. She saves herself, and she saves others, making her a heroine worthy of cheering on.

Chen Yong, Ai Ling’s travel companion and love interest, is a biracial hottie with a mysterious past, but thankfully, he’s not a) an “~exotic~” prop (quite the opposite, there is exploration of how he is “othered” by people for his mixed heritage) or b) an asshole whose past is used to excuse his horrible personality. He has his own story and struggles, especially in the second book, making him a character with depth, but he doesn’t usurp Ai Ling’s story and centrality, nor does the romance hijack the plot.

The first book concludes with loose ends. The second book picks up shortly after where the first book ends, bringing new conflicts and new characters as Ai Ling and Chen Yong travel to Jiang Dao to find Chen Yong’s birth family. It introduces a new perspective, the main antagonist’s, telling the story of his former life, in alternation with current events, thus adding greater depth to his character as and offering insight into his eventual transformation into a villain. It also brings the story full circle to a satisfying conclusion.

The only major thing lacking in this series was female characters/interaction. Thankfully, Cindy wrote Serpentine and Sacrifice to make up for that.

Recommendation: Read this duology! Recommended for fantasy lovers and older teens.

Review for The Prophecy Trilogy* by Ellen Oh

*Also called the Dragon King Chronicles

My Summary: The kingdom of Hansong and its neighbors are under attack by Yamato forces and demon hordes, led by the Demon Lord himself. An ancient prophecy foretells the arrival of a hero, the Dragon Musado, who will unite the Seven Kingdoms and defeat the Demon Lord by collecting the three sacred treasures. Kira, cousin and bodyguard to the heir to the throne, is gifted with special powers that allow her to sense demons. Although her priority is keeping her cousin safe for the future of the throne, she soon discovers that she has a great destiny of her own awaiting her.

Review:

Slight spoilers regarding the romance plot! Beware!

I am honestly so happy this trilogy exists because there aren’t any others like it that I know of. An action-adventure fantasy YA story set in a Korean-inspired alternate universe? The moment I found out about it, I was like, “NEED.”

And Ellen Oh doesn’t fail to deliver. The series balances a fast-paced, quest-driven plot with character development and solid worldbuilding. The relationships between the characters stand out the most with me: Kira’s protective and loving relationship with her cousin Taejo; her part-affection, part-annoyance banter with her brothers; her supportive parents who believe in her until the last (*cries because I love supportive parents*), her cute friendship-turned-romance with Jaewon, her special bond with Nara (she is my favorite secondary character, I love her!), and her complicated relationship with herself and journey to accepting her own greatness.

At first I thought Kira would fall into the “I’m Not Like Other Girls and am misogynistic toward them because I’m physically strong and not stereotypically feminine” trap because it sounded like it at the beginning. I’m glad the series eventually proved me wrong with portrayals of women’s strength and bravery, combat-related or otherwise, a very showy subversion of the feminine/beautiful=weak/stupid trope, and Kira’s heartwarming friendship with Nara (I would read a whole series on Nara, to be honest).

I also appreciate how the romance panned out. No insta-love/lust, overdone love triangle, no glorification of assholery. Doubt and conflict, yes, but also mutual care and trust. YA needs more of this.

Also, my favorite snippet of dialogue from the entire series:

“Your hair is so short. Are you a girl or boy?”

“I’m a warrior,” Kira answered with slow, deliberate intent.

Current gender: warrior. TBH.

Recommendation: Read it. It’s a quick read and a great escape from the monotony of mundane life. (Can you tell that I really want to be a swordsmanperson?)

P.S. The covers are gorgeous and I am forever disappointed that the version of King with the tiger silhouette didn’t end up on the final cover. When I was at the National Museum of Korea in September, I saw a crown almost exactly like the one on the cover of King and had to take a picture because why would I not?)